Author Archive

The Real Mao

I have no plans to read the new book by Jung Chang, despite the fact that I finally got around to reading her widely acclaimed multigenerational memoir, Wild Swans, when I first returned to China this July. Like that first tome, her latest work–a comprehensive biography of Mao Zedong, titled, simply, Mao–is reputed to be a bit too prolix to be a fun read, and despite (or perhaps because of) my previous ultra-leftist leanings, I’ve never been all that interested in the life and crimes of the Chairman. His story piques my interest just long enough to sustain me through the sometimes-wise and sometimes-annoying Nicholas Kristof’s review of it in the Times. His writing is clearer (and more humorous, surely) than Chang’s, as evidenced by the way he opens his review:

If Chairman Mao had been truly prescient, he would have located a little girl in Sichuan Province named Jung Chang and “mie jiuzu”- killed her and wiped out all her relatives to the ninth degree.

But instead that girl grew up, moved to Britain and has now written a biography of Mao that will help destroy his reputation forever. Based on a decade of meticulous interviews and archival research, this magnificent biography methodically demolishes every pillar of Mao’s claim to sympathy or legitimacy.

Despite his early praise for her efforts (which were actually done in tandem with her British historian husband), he goes on to give me every reason not to bother cashing out for this ponderous re-evaluation of the man whose ugly face is still relatively ubiquitous in China (and in the t-shirt shops of the East Village). Still, I felt the need to post about it here, if only because its publication is a common topic of conversation among Beijing’s more literarily inclined expats at the moment, and because the book and issues of magazines with reviews of it have been banned by the Chinese government. I’m just doing my duty here, reporting on the cultural zeitgeist of Beijing’s international community and making news of the book’s contents available in at least one more place in which Chinese readers might be able to access it.

Posted by on October 24th, 2005

What an interlude!

Sorry for the lapse in time between the previous post and this one, but in the past week I’ve both quit my job and become newly single–both of which I’m viewing as opportunities for new and interesting experiences, but I’ve still spent quite a lot of psychic (and physical) energy over the last week or so pondering these events. I promise I’ll have lots more interesting things up here soon, as they’re all already bubbling in my brain, but I just haven’t had the time to post.

In other news, I’ve reserved tickets home to New York for a vacation from December 15th through January 6th. Depending on what happens on the work scene, these dates may shift a bit, but if you’ll be in the area and want to see me, be in touch.

Posted by on October 24th, 2005

The Tibet Express

As I read in this article from the People’s Daily, China announced yesterday that construction has finished on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. The railway, having surpassed the railway between Cuzco and Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes (which I rode in 2002) to become the world’s highest, traverses 1,956 kilometers of mountains and frozen plateau between Xining and Lhasa. Still, test runs aren’t set to take place until July, which will probably mean a start date for regular service long after my hopeful trip to the region early next summer.

Just as interesting as the news itself, however, was this editorial also published in the People’s Daily, which, after praising the efforts of the government planners, engineers, and construction crews, goes on to preemptively defend their creation from the many international detractors worried about cultural imperialism in Tibet and the strong cultural and environmental impact that increased traffic and lower travel costs will have on the remote region, which even now is still difficult and expensive to reach. Amidst all this, the editorial makes a fair point, which many so-called activists neglect to consider:

Only when one sees with his or her own eyes a Tibetan who struggled his way on rugged roads on foot on a bare mountain can he realize what a modern traffic tool means for Tibet. They, who are enjoying all the conveniences and luxuries of modern civilization, are disqualified to make any remarks to defame China’s efforts in developing Tibet. And those who think the snow land should be kept as a medieval museum to satisfy their bizarre personal curiosity should feel ashamed for their selfishness and nearsightedness.

Despite the validity of this argument, however, the editorial takes it one step too far, reasoning that:

Such tub-thumpers neglected a basic truth of human history: Development is a common choice of the human race, and no one should, or can, slam on a brake on a train to modern civilization.

If I believed that the Tibetan people had been at all consulted about their desires regarding a rail link to the rest of China, or that the impact increased tourism by both Chinese and foreigners will have on the fragile cultural balance left in the wake of persecution and on the incredible and not-yet-spoiled landscape of the “roof of the world” had received due consideration on the part of the Chinese government planners, I might agree that this development was “a common choice of the human race.” As it more likely stands, however, it seems yet another dictate imposed on the Tibetans by their conquerors, one that might make the transportation of supplies, goods, and people into and out of the region more easily achieved, but one that will certainly have negative consequences as well.


Posted by on October 16th, 2005

Durians and breadfruit and jackfruit, oh my!

So, when I said that the foodie gods had bestowed some divine luck upon me and let me see durians just sprouting from the trunk of a tree on the beach–I lied. Or, more accurately, I was mistaken. I was so excited about seeing them that I hadn’t made the effort to confirm my suspicion that they weren’t actually the infamously odoriferous and dangerously spiky and heavy fruit but rather some other Malaysian treat. They hadn’t seemed sharp enough, and that is the distinction that makes all the difference. In addition, I’d been told that they don’t usually grow out of the side of a trunk, but only in the branches. After some research, in which I came across this blog, which has terrific pictures and fair descriptions of many fruits native to Malaysia and the surrounding region, and a number of other sites that were a lot less interesting, I think I have narrowed its classification down to the jackfruit or some special local variety thereof, like the chempedak or the marang. That’s still pretty exciting, especially after looking up some facts about the jackfruit here:

Jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, reaching 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter. The exterior of the compound fruit is green or yellow when ripe. The interior consists of large edible bulbs of yellow, banana-flavored flesh that encloses a smooth, oval, light-brown seed. There may be 100 or up to 500 seeds in a single fruit, which are viable for no more than three or four days. When fully ripe, the unopened jackfruit emits a strong disagreeable odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana.

Since it also says that the jackfruit can “appear on short, stout twigs that emerge from the trunk and large branches, or even from the soil-covered base of very old trees,” I think I have probably found my fruit.

The weirdest thing is that jackfruit and breadfruit both are distant cousins of the fig–reminds me of the taxonomical closeness of elephants and hyraxes.


Posted by on October 16th, 2005

From the island to the city (Malaysia: the end)

The morning I left Pulau Perhentian Besar, I noticed some durians growing out of the side of a tree right by my rustic beach chalet, an exciting send-off from this beautiful island to my exotic-fruit-obsessed mind. Still, that moment of foodie bliss, unimpinged even by the fact that I didn’t even get to cut one open, let alone devour it, was little comfort during the trials of the rest of the day, which was uneventful but, for one specific reason, painful. From the time I departed the island, racing across the strait that divides it from its partner, Pulau Perhentian Kecil, in a rickety motorboat in order to catch the ferry, which had departed from its usual course, I sat on my severely sunburned legs (Who would have thought that three applications of sunblock would not be enough to prevent an entire day of lying face down in the water, as snorkeling would have one do, from causing horrible damage to the skin? I guess being about one degree away from the equator (to the north) didn’t help that situation.) for two hours on a boat rocked by the huge waves stirred up by the monsoon the night before, for an hour in a taxi from the jetty to the airport in Kota Bharu, and then, after paying $80 for the last available seat–it was first class!–on the Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, since it was leaving in 40 minutes and the next Air Asia flight, which probably would have cost only $40, wasn’t leaving until six hours later, for another hour on a plane.

By the time I got to KL, I was utterly exhausted, plagued both by my fried thighs and the call of my internet addiction, unsatisfied for the prior two and a half days. It was then that I posted my photos of the island itself, after which I headed out to grab some dinner, stumbled into the closest fast-food establishment I could find, and ate there because it was an A&W–which I’ve only seen in the airport in Columbus, Ohio, but which I know from my friend M. exists in Asia as well because the first one he ever saw was in China–and because they had onion rings and what was actually a really good Belgian waffle, complete with an embossed corporate logo in the center. Also, all fast-food restaurants in Malaysia have two sauce pumps by the napkins, where in America we only have ketchup. They’ve got ketchup as well, but the red liquid that squirts out of the other shouldn’t be mistaken for our favorite condiment: it’s chile sauce, sos cili in Malay, and familiar to me as the Indonesian Sriratha brand. A couple drops of that mixed into the ketchup actually makes the perfect accompaniment to french fries, far better than the standard Heinz alone.

In any case, I spent that night at the Pudu Hostel, since it was the author’s choice in Lonely Planet and, as I saw from the thumbs-up sticker on the door when I arrived, a Let’s Go top pick in both 2003 and 2005. The vintage of this most recent decal actually means that it was my friend A.F., from Singapore, who recommended it, since he worked as the Let’s Go Researcher-Writer for Singapore and Malaysia in the summer of 2004, when the 2005 guide was compiled. (I know this so well since during that summer I too was an employee of the fabled guidebook company popular with student and budget travelers who aren’t as interesting as Lonely Planet readers–I was the editor of the Spain and Portugal guide, so it’s not entirely relevant here…another time, another story, perhaps.) Despite its high marks, however, this hostel was one of the crummiest and scariest in which I’ve ever stayed. The bathrooms were far from hygienic, as the book had described them, the bedrooms smelled of mold and rot, the bunkbed threatened to collapse with every toss and turn, promising to send me flying down onto the sketchy guy asleep below me, and the “sociable” lounge was a dingy parlor with, yes, a nice flat-screen TV, but also with a not-so-nice crowd, busted sofas, and mean-faced Malaysian employees hovering over the room. I managed to survive the night somehow, sad that my $4 had bought me only this level of comfort, and eager to make it to the Chinese embassy in order to submit my application for the work visa that the communist bureaucracy had made so difficult to obtain back in China itself.

But the Chinese embassy only left me sadder. The line was tremendously long, the dirty room flooded with visa applicants trying to head north and make some money off of the awakening giant’s sky-high growth rate. In the course of the four hours I spent there that day, at two different times, I spoke with a man from KL who now lives in Jakarta and owns a company that manufactures pipes–and who had three long hairs growing out of a mole on his face, like the whiskers of a catfish–an Indian Malay whose family owns a fireworks factory in Changsha, a nondescript city in Hunan, and who was heading up to check on production there, and then to check out the new Disneyland in Hong Kong, and a KL-based Chinese businesswoman who was off to Shanghai to conduct very important business and make some deals. If the conversation wasn’t riveting, at least it kept me from trying to stab a Chinese official with a glue stick meant for affixing photos to application forms. Eventually I got what I had come there for, having spent an intervening two hours trying to find the nice part of KL, and succeeding, to some extent, by visiting the great shopping mall that forms the base of the Petronas Towers, which are, of course, the world’s tallest buildings–though it’s certain they won’t remain at the top of the heap for much longer. The mall was gorgeous, but comparable to much of what I’d seen on Orchard Road in Singapore, and in Singapore, at least, I knew I could stay someplace nice, let alone someplace that didn’t make me feel like a crazy drifter, capable of doing strange-in-a-bad-way things in this disturbing city, this sprawling, traffic-logged, polluted metropolis dotted with marble shopping centers, mosques, and Citibanks that seemed like an overwhelming cross between the city-state I’d just visited and the capital in which I now live.

Posted by on October 16th, 2005

Getting an early start

I’m amazed by some of the statistics reported in this article in today’s Times:

  • Twenty public schools in Chicago are now offering instruction in Mandarin.
  • “After 2,400 schools expressed interest, Advanced Placement Chinese classes will be offered in high schools around the country starting next year. Beijing is paying for half the $1.35 million to develop the classes, including Chinese teachers’ scholarships and developing curriculums and examinations.”
  • “Last month, the Defense Department gave a $700,000 grant to public schools in Portland, Ore., to double the number of students studying Chinese in an immersion program.”
  • “In May, Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, introduced a bill to spend $1.3 billon over five years on Chinese language programs in schools and on cultural exchanges to improve ties between the United States and China.”
  • Chinese language programs in the US have more than tripled in number in the last ten years.
  • And, up to 50,000 American students are studying Chinese in elementary and secondary schools alone!

    These numbers seem incredible to me, despite the fact that the other high school in my district has offered a 4-year Mandarin sequence for close to a decade now. (Our school had classes in Hebrew and Farsi, which better represented the demographics of our side of town, in addition to the French, Spanish, Latin, and (a conversational course in) Italian available throughout the district.) The amazingness of some of these programs speaks for itself, as in this description of the nascent endeavor in Chicago’s public schools:

    One recent morning, a class of third graders bowed to one another and introduced themselves in Chinese, and a class of fourth graders practiced writing numbers in Chinese characters on marker boards. Chinese classes began at Alcott in February, but more students are already choosing it over Spanish.

    Even more surprising is the fact that these classes are not just being implemented in the richest and whitest of neighborhoods (or in affluent suburbs like my own hometown)–in Chicago at least, a number of the participating schools are predominantly black or Hispanic. This diversity in the cultural and economic backgrounds of the students involved, and the varying education levels of their parents, may contribute to some concerns about the difficulty of teaching Chinese to little kids from the inner city, but lack of knowledge isn’t the only reason behind that wariness. Even if they know something about what it takes to learn Chinese (as I do), they’d still have rationale for their worries:

    Some parents here worry at first about how relevant the Chinese classes are and whether they will be too difficult. The Foreign Service Institute, which trains American diplomats, ranks Chinese as one of the four most time-intensive languages to learn. An average English speaker takes 1,320 hours to become proficient in Chinese, compared with 480 hours in French, Spanish or Italian, the institute says.

    Programs like this are terrific, and not just because they expose children that might otherwise grow up with a somewhat limited perspective of the world around them with a sense of its true expansiveness and manifold cultural differences. It’s also just plain awesome that these 10-year-olds are able to start learning any language, and especially one that both takes many years to learn well and is much easier to acquire at a young age. Even though I attended one of the best public schools in the country, the only foreign language instruction I was able to receive before the sixth grade was a month-long before school Spanish program in fourth grade in which we met for a half-hour two or three times a week and learned how to count and say hello (and perhaps a few other words that I forgot long before I again had a chance to take up studying the language). This kid, Raul Freire, the 9-year-old son of an Ecuadorian immigrant, has had the opportunity of a lifetime to miss a few minutes of gym, art, and music and gain the world instead:

    “Mostly everybody in the school wants to take Chinese,” Raul said. “I think about being a traveler when I grow up, so I have to learn as many languages as I can.”

    I can’t help but be jealous of kids able to participate in programs like these–and to be inspired to work even harder on my own studies here, so some little kid who’s never left the South Side can’t speak Chinese better than I can!

  • Posted by on October 16th, 2005

    Sometimes, China rocks

    This, in response to getting my computer back, completely up and running under OS X Tiger, with a brand new harddrive, in less than five days. And they guaranteed me it would take at least a week for the drive to arrive from Shanghai. As of this moment, it no longer feels so horrible to have returned here from Singapore.

    This turn of events also means that I will shortly be posting about the remainder of my awesome trip, and about all the craziness that has ensued since my return. Sorry it’s been so sporadic, but it’s difficult to blog without a computer, you know–and hard to part with the $4 they charge per hour to use one of the computers in the lobby of my apartment building. That is actually quite expensive, for China anyway.

    Posted by on October 14th, 2005

    Turtle update

    So, apparently that was not just any old sea turtle but actually a leatherback one, a species on the verge of extinction. I stole this picture from the internet, as I don’t have an underwater camera, and there was certainly no place to buy one on this island in the middle of the South China Sea, the only store on which sold batik sarongs and sunblock. I gleaned some awesome facts about the leatherback from the site linked to above and thought I’d share them here as well:

  • A leatherback’s favorite food is jellyfish. They even have a special notch in their beak to help puncture the man-o-war jellyfish.
  • Leatherbacks in Costa Rica lay two kinds of eggs: yolked and yolkless.
  • The temperature in the nest determines if a hatchling will be a boy or a girl.
  • A leatherback’s shell is covered by a leathery skin.
  • The “tears” that turtles “cry” are just their way of shedding excess salt.
  • Posted by on October 12th, 2005

    Fantasy Island?

    Lonely Planet calls Pulau Perhentian Besar, the island on which I’ve spent the past two days, a real-life “Fantasy Island,” but I would have to disagree. At least this late in the season, with most of the facilities on the island scheduled to close in two weeks until March, and the beginnings of the monsoon already upon it–with incredible storms both nights I was there from 7pm until late at night–there wasn’t much of a crazy party scene going down. The island is beautiful, though: the surrounding water of the South China Sea a deep turquoise, spotted with purple splotches were the coral lies below the surface, the coconut palms abundant, the buildings the most rustic I’ve experienced on an island vacation but perfect for the setting.

    Once I took a taxi from the Kota Bharu airport to the jetty at Tok Bali and caught the fast ferry across to the island, I went for a quick sunset swim and met up with my friend A., her boyfriend J., and his friend J.U. We ate at my hotel: hot and flaky roti canai (similar to the parathas of Singapore’s Little India), fish pineapple curry, which was terrific–the kingfish freshly hooked, the pineapples super-sweet, and the curry itself perfectly spicy–for dessert a fried banana with honey, and all accompanied by what would prove the first of many glasses of orange-pineapple juice. (Since it’s in a heavily Muslim region, the island isn’t exactly a bastion of alcoholic reverie…this late in the season, only one bar-restaurant even had any beer left in stock, Tiger and Chang. I had Tiger, it was just as A.F. had described it, “like Heineken but less bitter.”) After dinner we played poker and then made it an early night. They headed back to their overpriced resort, while I tucked myself in to a small bed under a ceiling overhung with lizards (that’s a good thing, since they eat the things that are bad) at Paradise, my cheap island hostel.

    The next morning, I made a startling discovery. I thought I had been snorkeling before (once, with turtles and a family friend in Barbados), but that was nothing compared to this. I floated above thousands of fish feeding from the small coral reefs just offshore in the bay for almost an hour before lunch, entranced by the beautiful colors and patterns of their bodies and overwhelmed by my entrance into this entirely new world. It inspired me to inquire about diving certification at the dive shop, but I wasn’t going to have enough time on the island to finish the course–it will have to wait for another vacation, perhaps to Thailand.

    Still, snorkeling satisfied me for the rest of the day, after a lunch of local noodles–kue tiau goreng, which were thin and broad and mixed with chicken, egg, and cabbage and other good vegetables. With my friends, I swam across the entire bay twice, the first time to reach the cove with all the terrific fish I’d observed that morning, the second to backtrack to where one of them had earlier spotted a giant sea turtle. It was a successful mission, and I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was hovering for almost fifteen minutes right above this tremendous sea turtle. It was at least eight feet across, and below its giant flippers it actually sheltered two small sharks, a purple one and a yellow one. I tried the entire time to untangle the complicated relationship that was clearly at work, but I’m still not sure whether they were protecting or hurting the turtle, whether their interactions were symbiotic or antagonistic. I guess I should look it up somewhere.

    Posted by on October 5th, 2005

    An Islamic concept-town

    On Monday before dawn, I hopped in a cab to Johor Bharu, more commonly known as JB, the city just across the Malaysian border, where, supposedly, everything costs half the price it does in Singapore, and where the airport from which I was to fly to my next destination is located. The taxi across the border cost about $30, and the passport-control and customs process went as smoothly as I could possibly have imagined. The cab driver handed my documents to a woman in a tollbooth, she stamped them, swiped his access card, and gave them back to us. Then the Malaysian official did the same thing, and we drove on, as if we had just crossed the border between New York and New Jersey or some other equally mundane delineation.

    Then, I flew on Asia Pacific’s Number 1 airline, Air Asia. They left late, as they are rumored always to do, but still arrived early in Kuala Lumpur (KL), where I had a 3-hour wait before my next flight on their no-frills airline to Kota Bharu (no abbreviation). The airports in these first two cities impressed me with their modern look, ample shops and restaurants, and western outlook: even the little airport in JB had a Dunkin’ Donuts and a Famous Amos cookie shop! I tried a donut but the frosting was all wrong. Instead I had scrambled eggs and toasted ciabatta at the nondescript but clean coffeeshop down the hall. The KL airport even had a counter with Neuhaus chocolates–my favorite!!–so I bought two pieces of dark chocolate filled with vanilla cream, the best sweet known to man.

    The airport at Kota Bharu was interesting for an entirely different reason: it announced that the city was the gateway to the east-coast province of Kelantan, true, but also that it was meant to be an “Islamic concept town.” As the poster read, “Located in Pengkalan Chepa, Kota Bharu, about 20 minutes away from town, the terminal showcases a Moorish architecture, which resembles buildings in the Middle East; apart from reflecting and maintaining the traditional local flavour. It is in harmony with the State’s vision of turning Kota Bharu into an Islamic-concept town by year 2005.” I had a chance to return there today, after I caught the ferry back from Pulau Perhentian Besar and decided to find out what flights were available and when. It turned out that the next Air Asia flight wasn’t until 9:30pm (it was 3pm then) and that the previous one had been cancelled due to lack of work ethic during Ramadan, so I didn’t want to take any chances). Malaysia Airlines, which has been advertising its new Business Class with a slogan something like, “Sometimes the world’s greatest luxury isn’t even on earth,” however, had one of those very Business Class seats available for only $80. I decided it was worth it, which I still think after the flight, despite the fact that the service wasn’t quite the most luxurious I’ve ever experienced, and the food sucked. However, they did bring me a glass of delicious mango juice right after I boarded, the meal was served on china with real cutlery, and my bag was tagged specially to pop out onto the baggage belt among the very first, which made my arrival in KL tonight nice and breezy.

    Posted by on October 5th, 2005